Woven from articles by motoring journalists of the period, and after, including Ken Maxwell, Harvey Thomas, Ben van Rensburg, Adri Bezuidenhout, Greg Mills and Andre Loubser, and kindly put together by Richard Lander.
Basil’s motor racing career is a remarkable one by any standards, with an instinctive self-taught skill shown from early beginnings. His career reaches not only across all classes from motor cycles to touring and sports cars, but to F1 as well. In all these he displayed abilities of the highest international level, competing in 6 countries and on 3 continents. But his engineering successes and innovations are no less remarkable, as was his rare ability to commercialise these in a career that included setting up the renowned performance and accessory company, Superformance, and guiding it to becoming the largest in Africa, whilst simultaneously securing many contracts with leading car manufacturers to produce special models or lead their competition programmes for them. After the global oil crisis in 1973, he decided to change direction, and was head-hunted to head up a leading packaging and display manufacturing company in Johannesburg. This was a successful time, and led to Basil emigrating to Sydney Australia, having been invited by a group to set up a similar undertaking there. This third career as MD, lasted for nearly 2 decades, until his “retirement” in 2006, when his energies soon turned to inventions and patents. These included the HeeBeeGeeBee, a successful novelty gift, and the Twister, a pool cleaner device now gaining international recognition. He is currently developing another more ambitious patented invention, which is a two-stroke engine which runs on oil-free petrol, and includes novel valving. It is called CITS technology, an acronym for Crankcase-Independent Two-Stroke. see www.citsengine.com.au.
The following is devoted to his racing and engineering career, from 1957 to 1980.
Basil van Rooyen’s prowess as both engineer and driver behind cars such as the Lotus Cortina, Mustang, Alfa GTA, Capri Perana, CanAm “Little Chev” V8 and Fiat/Ferrari is synonymous with the SA Saloon Car Championship and Springbok Series. But he also raced in part of 2 domestic Formula One seasons, taking 3 victories, and in two World Formula One Grands Prix to much acclaim, and enjoyed a number of memorable drives in sports cars in the International Kyalami 9 hour races with a fourth overall in 1967, and a second overall place in 1968, with class wins in both and several in the 3 hour series that make up the Springbok.Series.
As an 18-year-old Wits University engineering student, Basil started in motor sport in 1957 riding his street Puch 250 (pictured) at a Grand Central race, his corduroy trousers tucked into his socks. With no track experience, but having “raced “ his sports bike and challenged anyone game on the roads around Johannesburg, he instinctively developed a riding style which was ahead of its time, due to his touring type footrests scraping when leaning into the corners. By transferring maximum bodyweight to the inside, he could corner faster, and soon rode knee-crooked-over-saddle, with head under the handlebars. This was noticed by world champion Devote, who was brought out by Puch to ride and manage a 3-bike team in a much-publicised 24-hour race held at Grand Central. He selected a team including champion riders such as Laurie Ziemann and Clarrie Hurst. Only after Devote fell in practice, breaking a leg at the corner which became known as Devotes, did he relent and select this inexperienced school boy. Surprising the establishment, Basil rode on the winning bike, taking the 350cc class win as well as the 250 cc class. However to hold the slipstream of a 350cc class machine down the straights, he had to lay
stomach-on-the-saddle with legs with toes pointed to the back. This took a toll on his kidneys – not even owning racing leathers, let alone a kidney belt – and that set-back put an end to his promising bike racing career.
Basil says Meissner was a gifted engineer ahead of his time, and as Basil competed with Meissner’s driver Koos Swanepoel, he found himself on a steep engineering learning curve regarding engine and suspension.modifications and track setting-up. But by 1965, in the second year of their nationwide titanic struggles, Basil had edged ahead, and is seen above, leading Koos into Clubhouse corner at Kyalami. Crowds grew at every event around the country, as these two drivers thrilled all with their close racing.
For 1966, Mustang V8’s replaced the Lotus Cortina’s. Champion driver Peter Gough was now driving for Meissner. The Mustangs were being prepared for battle in the high-tech opposing workshops, Meissner in CapeTown and Basil's Superformance in Johannesburg.. Basil and his Mustang proved unbeatable taking the championship that year, and again 1967. He also took the car to England for a race at Brands Hatch. After a promising practice, it poured at the start of the race and on intermediate tyres, he aquaplaned off, putting the car on its side. But the challenge was not over, as the British champion, British champion Roy Pierpoint and his lightweight Falcon V8 was invited to South Africa in a 4 race challenge around the tracks of S.Africa. Basil won all four.
Alfa Romeo were campaigning their GTA in the South Arican championship without success, and had even being beaten by the Mini Coopers on the tighter circuits. Basil was approached by them to switch from Ford, if he could get their GTA competitive for the 1968 championship. Meissner’s were preparing a Cortina with the F1-based new Cosworth 4 valve 2-litre engine for the new season. To see if he could answer this challenge with the Alfa Romeo's old 2 valve long stroke engine, Basil requested an engine to cut in half to ascertain if he could find more power than Alfa's racing department had. A contract was signed and this development is a story in itself. Within 3 months the revamped GTA appeared at Kyalami, and broke Basil’s own V8 Mustang lap record, and lapped 6 seconds faster than the GTA had before. Whilst leading from pole, in its first race in Cape Town, Meissner’s home circuit, he was bumped off from behind by Peter Gough's Cortina on the 8th lap. At the next race at Kyalami, the Alfa GTA won.
But now F1 was seeking Basil in a Grand Prix just 10 days away! Out of the blue, John Love offered him a drive , in in his ageing Cooper Climax, (pictured) in the world Grand Prix, just weeks away. Love now had a Brabham Repco V8, so his old steed was available. . As a touring car driver with no such single-seater experience, Basil was at once terrified and intrigued and initially turned the offer down – but with his mechanic Roger Taylor's and Love’s encouragement he took on the new challenge. Love’s offer still remains a mystery to Basil. At official practice, the visiting Grand Prix drivers protested that Basil had insufficient experience - and only Clerk of the Course Francis Tuckers plea's convinced them to allow him to practice, subject to any objections by any driver. There were none, and basil put up a respectable practice time.
His driving in the race earned him an offer from STP to procure Jack Brabham’s Repco F1, to challenge Love’s Brabham Repco for the 1968 F1 season in South Africa. Love promptly got the latest Lotus 49, so Basil had to campaign a less competitive car for his 1st season, succeeding in so far as beating all the other established F1’s for second place, pushing Love on occasions, and even winning his first F1 race in Cape Town, and another in the Rhodesian Grand Prix. Pictured is Prime Minister Smith presenting the trophy. Basil’s Alfa Romeo GTA was to be taken to further heights in the skilled hands of close friend Arnold Chatz in the rest of the season. With help from Arnold Chatz, Basil was offered Formula One sponsorship for 1968 from Lawson Motors to aquire a Lotus to challenge Love on equal terms. A Lotus proved too costly but a superseded McLaren M7a was secured. At their first race in January in Cape Town, Basil and Love lowered the lap record by over 4 seconds. Van Rooyen won pressing champion Love, who broke a drive shaft whilst leading. At the next race at Pietermaritzburg (see picture below) van Rooyen won convincingly – his 3rd F1 victory, and was leading the SA Championship in his 1st full season.
The 1969 world F1 championship now descended on Kyalami. Van Rooyen’s driving skill at Grand Prix level was confirmed when he was fourth fastest at the end of the first official practice day of the Kyalami F1 Grand Prix, with a series 8 Cosworth engine, 25 hp down on the series 9 engine of the works' cars – and in a superseded chassis. A wheel/tyre problem noticed by Dunlop excluded Basil from the all-important next 2 days of practice while a solution to the problem was sought. Dunlop had noticed a wobble in the sidewall as he sped past the pits, and called him in. Later the cause would be established - on these prototype spun wheels, the rim edge from the well was too short, causing the tyre-bead to take a 20 cm short-cut across the well in the rim, instead of air-pressure holding it against the rim all way round, when high-speed centrifugal force acted on the wide tread, pulling the trye beads away. Machining the prototype rims 0,3 mm larger like McLaren's own provided a temporary solution for the GP. However this was to prove fateful some weeks later.
McLaren had promised Basil their new cast 15” wide wheels for the SA GP, but due to a 6-month gas strike in Britain, they never arrived in time.
His curtailed GP practice time still left him in an impressive 9th on the star studded grid with no less that 6 world champions in the front 8, and a seventh behind. In the race, hydraulic failure saw the car retired after 19 laps – but his driving convinced Jackie Stewart and Ken Tyrrell to call Basil into their caravan and offer him a Matra works drive – starting at the Le Mans in June. He made plans to leave permanently within 6 weeks, and was to replace Tyrrell driver Johnny Sevoz-Gavin at the giddy heights of F1 and Le Mans. Due to accidents caused by these high-mounted wings breaking, they were then banned in F1 until further notice. 1 week before his departure, Dunlop called Basil for a tyre testing session at Kyalami for this dramatic change, which would see much higher top speeds, and lower cornering speeds. The McLaren was therefore geared for 20kph more than when winged. On the first fast run past the pits, mechanic Roger Taylor noticed 50mm of shiny rim showing each side of the right rear tyre which was deflated but still erect due to centrifugal force. A chilling preview of the problem can be seen in the picture above, showing the right rear rim and tyre slightly separating, even at that lower speed, in an earlier race in Natal.
The McLaren went into the earth bank on the left of the main straight at maximum speed, destroying the car, and hurling Basil 90 meters to the in-field – the first driver to come out of a Formula One's 6-point harness and live.
Here is a 30 second cinema news-clip from the pre-TV era in South Africa, on showing the wreckage and Basil being stretchered into an ambulance. The voice over incorrectly states the video is from practice for an upcoming South African Championship F1 event, but the video is a mix from both that and the tyre test day.
Basil took months to recover from rib, spinal and spleen injuries, and his place at Tyrrell was taken by Francois Cevert. At 30, van Rooyen’s chances of another Formula 1 works offer were unlikely. He returned within 3 months to Group 1 racing with an Alfa GT, to take a close victory over the Sunbeam Tiger V8 of Dirk Marais, and the Onyx Production Car championship in 1970.
A year later, Paddy Driver asked Basil why he was not back in F1. Explaining that he was unsure if he still had the single seater edge, or the urge, after the accident, Paddy kindly offered him his older 4.7 L space framed F5000 Lola to drive at the coming Easter races at Pietermaritzburg, to find out. At the race were the new-generation F5000’s of Lola, McLaren and Surtees, with dry sumps, monocoque chassis and 5 litre fuel-injected engines, in the hands of the established F 5000 drivers. Basil’s doubts were erased when he found himself competitive with them, and just three tenths of a second behind the SA champions’ John Love and Dave Charlton's Lotus F1’s, He went on to pass all the later F 5000's and hold this position to the end.
Advanced plans were then in place to purchase a F1 March for Basil and he was to meet Robin Herd (the “ H “ in March) at the Dutch F1 GP to hand over a cheque. He went via Tokyo on a business trip and whilst there was shocked to read the headlines of the death of his idol Bruce McLaren, practising in England. Saddened he went on to the Dutch GP, and whilst he was watching the race from the pits’ roof, with Helen Stewart and Sally Courage, Piers Courage was also killed. Basil, then 31, decided to cancel his F1 plans and to return to Saloon and Sports Car racing in SA, and to his business Superformance.
The championship year saw 14 race victories on the trot, spoilt only by the withdrawal of the "works" Perana. The 100 CanAm “Little Chevs” were certainly the fastest touring cars built anywhere, and the few surviving are today rare collector’s items. Every track record was broken by the race track version, shown on the right at Clubhouse corner, Kyalami. Basil won 13 of the 14.
In between the foregoing national championship racing, during the Christmas holidays, Basil took part in many Springbok endurance series drives in SA, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. These were an intoxicating mix of hotels, friends, international stars, travel and racing. His first Kyalami 9 hour was in 1963, with the late Barney Dworsky in Barney’s Anglia. They had a pre-historic 2-way radio fitted, barely audible over the open exhaust. Arnold Chatz recounts that Basil chatted away during his drive, and after the hand-over, the radio was silent, despite them calling Barney repeatedly for commentary. The radio was thought to be faulty, until Barney came in – and explained he couldn’t drive and talk at the same time!
In 1967, Tony Dean was successfully campaigning a glorious Porsche 906 in the UK and wanted a taste of the Springbok series and the glowing stories of SA’s girls, hospitality, and weather. He’d heard of Basil’s Mustang exploits and asked him to co-drive. He jumped at the chance to drive his first sports racing mid-engined car. They were a perfect team on and off the track, taking the class wins and a remarkable 4th overall, in spite of Basil hitting a spare wheel rolling across the track at night. The damage was repaired, with a torch taped in place to have the requisite 2 front lights at night!
The 3 hour races followed at all the other circuits, but Basil recalls that in Lourenco Marques, after an hour the throttle cable broke – a lengthy repair job. He noticed that a string could be tied from the driver’s mirror to the engine's throttle through the rear perspex window, and be manipulated by pressing it with the side of his helmet. Thus rigged, he finished the race, getting down to competitive lap times. Pictured left, Basil in the Porsche leads a gaggle of mouth-watering GT 40’s and Lola’s into Clubhouse bend.
The following year, Tony Dean brought out a delectable 2 litre Ferrari Dino Racing (see right) for the 1968 Springbok Endurance Series. In the Kyalami 9 hours, he and Basil took a memorable 2nd overall, and had a run of class wins in the rest of the 3 hour races around South Africa, Mocambique and Rhodesia in the series. It was the 1st international win for this Ferrari model, and Basil received a letter of recognition from Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemolo over 30 years later, which hangs framed on his garage wall in Sydney.
Basil had various other Springbok endurance drives – with fond memories of sharing with Arnold Chatz, Eddie Keizan, Dave Charlton, Nanni Galli, Christine Beckers and Chappie Wicks, in Alfas, with the late George Santana in his Datsun, with Brian Davies in his Davies sports, with Geoff Mortimer and the late Colin Burford in CanAm V8’s. Also a 6-hour win in Nova Lisboa, with the Portuguese champion Peixinho in the exotic AlfaTipo33 V8 – seen pictured right. This was a nerve racking experience says Basil, reaching speeds over 280Km/H down the straight - which was a tree lined avenue in the city centre, lined with spectators rather than barriers. An oil-cooler leak caused a pit stop, and no spare was to be found. About to retire the car, Basil suggested maybe their spare oil hoses might by=pass the oil-cooler. This was done to great cheers, and Basil finished leading the race. The trophy was presented by Mme Presidente !
Basil's story of the 1971 Springbok Series in a works Mazda RX 2 in 1971 is worth telling. This car had been running in the European Championships, about 4 seconds a lap behind the class-leading BMW coupe 3.0. Both these cars were coming out for the Springbok series and Mazda CEO Chris Griffiths offered Basil the drive in the Mazda together with a driver of his choice. He chose Peter Gough and wonders if Peter has ever forgiven him for doing so. Basil found the engine superb but the handling diabolical, and as the car was in the white-gloved hands of the very correct factory mechanics, he asked Griffiths if they could get the car to Basil’s workshops for a few “changes “. Through translators the Japs reluctantly agreed, but were horrified when as soon as the car hoisted aloft, the suspension was removed, springs, brackets
and struts cut and welded and shocks changed. The next day the car lapped 4 seconds faster. Basil was called Kitchi-Gai between the Japanese speaking mechanics, and looking in their dictionary he found it meant “mentally unwell “! Gough admitted to Basil that he was battling to get within 0.5 seconds of Basil’s Kyalami practice times – Basil’s home circuit. They went well in the race finishing a good 2nd to the world beating BMW 3L of Jochen Mass. At the next race in Cape Town, Gough’s home circuit, Basil only got within 0.3 of Gough’s practice time at HIS home circuit! The purpose of recounting this trivia will now become clear. As a gesture, and the first of a series of 5 tragic coincidences, Basil offered Peter, Basil’s usual 1st drive at the next 3 hour event in Lourenco Marques, where as a 2nd coincidence, a mighty head wind there, required a change of diff-ratio. As a third coincidence, Basil suspected the diff oil available from the local agents’ workshop, which his working experience at Shell told him, did not smell like an EP oil required. They reassured him it was EP oil. The diff duly overheated during Gough’s first spell. On coming in, the mechanics attempted a one-hour diff change job in 15 minutes and succeeded, but for the sizzling hot nuts, Gough sacrificed his Nomex driving gloves to the mechanics – the 4th coincidence. Basil was already togged and went on to finish the race.
The Bulawayo 3 hour was the following weekend. Gough flew his plane up from Cape Town and as his new Nomex gloves were ill-fitting, he elected to use his pilots’ gloves – nylon backed – and also not to wear his balaclava due to the 35-degree heat, the 5th coincidence. Basil took the first drive, and the car was flying, leading the Jochen Mass’ Cologne Capri for the first time.. When Gough took over after refueling, on his first lap, excess fuel in the boot sloshed down the floorboards and ignited at a slow corner.
An over-centre slam-down large filler-cap, which had never done this before – must have closed half way. Later when they tried to repeat this, they managed only with great patience. It had then chosen to un-clip rather than over-clip, in yet a further sixth coincidence in the factors leading to Gough’s serious and disfiguring burns. He opened the door and rolled out within seconds. Peter’s pilot’s gloves’ nylon mesh had melted on his hands. These, and the cruel third degree flash burns to his face that had been inflicted in a split second, became apparent in the months and years of suffering and surgery that followed. “Gaflas” as Basil fondly calls him, was still flying his plane and racing a Porsche as competitively as ever 40+ years later. An indomitable spirit and an inspiration to all, he remains a favourite in Basil’s memories of racing mates. Pictured here is Peter, at Killarney, Cape Town with Basil in the pillion seat of Peter’s Honda motorbike.
Basil’s last Springbok series would be his most ambitious and most disappointing. A 3rd racing CanAm V8 being built for the endurance series, was to be driven by Basil and Australian and international star, Frank Gardner. The car was late due to “Murphy’s law”. As the special CanAm gearbox was not available for this unplanned 101st car built, one was airfreighted not from GM spares department as would normally be the case, but directly from the gearbox manufacturer. As such, it comes undedicated to a particular diff ratio and thus the speedo drive gear is omitted - something unseen in production or spare gearboxes. The car was too late for official practice and only made the unofficial pre-race practice session where it felt perfect, but would start from the back of the grid. Half an hour into the race, Basil had already caught up to the leading touring car, when the CanAm’s gearbox exploded. The absence of the speedo drive gear had allowed a perfect exit point for every drop of gearbox oil to be pumped out. This disappointment was added to when days later the world oil crisis caused a ban on motor sport in South Africa until further notice, and GM to decide to dismantle the Chev Dealer Team.
In 1977, Basil got an invitation from Australian touring super star Peter Brock to join his Holden team’s annual assault on the amazing Bathurst 1000km mountain circuit race and the Sandown 500 3 hour in Melbourne. The racing there was mainly Holden Torana V8’s – similar to the Can Am V8’s - against the thundering Ford Falcon GTHO coupes - 20 or 30 of them, all very competitive, but the Torana with a less powerful 5 litre V8 than the Z28 found in the South African CanAms.
For the 3 hour race, Basil raced solo in Pete Brock’s superseded Torana V8 A9X - seen above - Brock and John Harvey each driving with co-drivers in the later Torana SLR 5000 V8 models – and Basil still took a remarkable 4th .amongst a competitive field. Then it was on to Bathurst where British Champion, the late Gerry Marshall, was to partner Basil, both now also in the faster Torana SLR 5000.
The car arrived late for the last practice session – enough for them to get in a few laps of this daunting circuit and still grid 18th out of 45. Basil had the first drive and worked his way up to eventual winner Jacky Ickx’s Falcon, running with him until the first pit stop, when Marshall took over, but he came limping home a few minutes later, with the seat frame punched through the floorboards! The car had to be retired as the torn floor boards were tar sprayed and could not be welded in time.
A day before the Bathurst race, Basil got news of his mother’s unexpected passing in Johannesburg. This blow weighed upon his thoughts, but he felt his mum would not have wanted him to let the team down. Flights between SA and Australia were curtailed for apartheid sanctions and he could not have made the funeral so he went ahead with the great race with other thoughts on his mind.
Having sold his interest in the renowned tune-up and accessory distributor Superformance, after the global oil crisis in 1973, Basil was now CEO of a leading packaging company, but decided to keep some involvement in motor-sport and to enter the Formula Atlantic Series with Wrangler sponsorship. The series was being dominated by Ian Scheckter’s March, so Basil called friend Herd of March to order one. He was non-plussed when Herd told him they could not supply him or anyone else in South Africa that year because Scheckter’s deal precluded this – unless Basil could get permission from Scheckter. Certain he would oblige, Basil called him and was amazed to get a firm no, and says that this was a sad and puzzling stance, because Scheckter’s superb driving and dominance of the series will always leave the element of doubt as to the part the car played. Basil then bought a Chevron – seen above, with mechanic Roger Taylor (centre), wife Pookie, Basil and daughters Tracy and Lara.
He started finishing midfield. It took him and star mechanic Roger Taylor 6 races to steadily modify the poor handling Chevron before taking a few thirds and seconds and one pole. Impressively, Basil beat the world Formula Atlantic and future world F1 champion Gilles Villeneuve, in the latest work’s Chevron, when he was invited to South Africa for 4 events, Ian Scheckter and Roy Klomfass in March’s and Basil in his older self-improved Chevron, beat him in all 4 races. This was testimony to the international competitiveness in the South African series, and to the March. By then the Championship was losing appeal, and Wrangler’s sponsorship deal ended. For the first time Basil had no racing project and was able to focus on the leading packaging business he was running..
In 1979, the ill-conceived “ Manufacturers Challenge” series was announced, aimed at attracting all the South African motor manufacturers and to get the crowds back to racing – this by allowing any engine within an automotive group, i.e. a Porsche engined VW or a Rover V8 powered Mini. Fiat decided to get Facetti in Italy to build a Fiat 131 with a turbo Ferrari 2.5l engine. Basil was contracted to drive it. Then with only 6 months to go to the first race, Facetti let them down, saying he could now only prepare the engine. Basil was asked if he could design and build the whole car. A deal was settled after Basil got the permission of the Board for it to be built in the packaging factory tool room. He designed a tubular chassis with fibreglass replica bodywork, a novel De Dion rear axle, huge brakes and wheels, to handle the 600bhp Ferrari engine – the first time he had designed a chassis from the ground up.
The work had to be stopped at the dashboard for weeks – held up by the engine and gearbox arriving only 3 weeks before the first race. A last minute rush saw a semi-finished but exciting Fiat on the start line. It proved faster than the 5L V8’s first time out, until the Ferrari gearbox gave up. A magazine cutting about the third race reads “…..van Rooyen in the Fiat 131 lived up to the promise by challenging then passing the roaring V8 Chevs. Neither Mortimer nor Hepburn could hold him off…” The radical Fiat is seen above, with its giant wheels and tyres for the time.
Sadly, with the car’s potential not yet realised, Fiat announced their total withdrawal from South African manufacture, and offered Basil the car but without their backing. He declined and decided that at 42, with 23 years of racing behind him, it was time to retire and to devote himself to directing the growing business and family. Within a year the moribund series ended anyway.